With the lock-out finally winding down and training camp set to start in about a week, we can finally start talking actual hockey again. Huzzah!
The long lay-off, new CBA rules plus the development of players and a shortened NHL season will all have an impact on how this season shapes up for the Flames. Here are some primary issues and questions the Flames will face:
1.) The Spectre of a Slow Start
The Flames were terrible to start the season in each of the last two years. Each time they fell to the very bottom of the league by December before reeeling things back in just enough to barely miss the post-season by April.
A 50-game schedule means there can be no 3 month warm-up period this time though. Which is especially problematic for an older roster that has seen the vast majority of it’s big ticket players sitting on the sidelines for the last eight months. Jarome Iginla, Mike Cammalleri, Alex Tanguay, Miikka Kiprusoff, Curtis Glencross, Dennis Wideman, Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano – none of these guys have done much more than skate and scrimmage since their season ended last April. Now, they will have an abbreviated training camp to try to get back into game shape.
In addition, new additions Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka tried to play hockey in Europe, but injuries limited them to four games and 14 games respectively. So the entriety of Calgary’s top-end has been on the sidelines for a huge chunk of time and they won’t have any kind of grace period to get themselves back in shape. A four week cold streak to start the season could kill their playoff chances immediately.
2.) On the other hand – a better shot at a high pick
For those who like the see the glass as half full, if the Flames pull out of the gate slowly it could mean a top-10 pick in an entry draft year where the high-end talent is relatively dense. Adding a Jonathan Drouin, Aleksander Barkov, Hunter Shinkaruk or Seth Jones to the fold would be a nice consolation prize for missing the dance again.
3.) The end of Jarome Iginla era?
The best part about the lock-out ending for Flames fans is we get to see Iginla in the Flaming C again. There’s no guarantee the captain will re-sign with the team after this season, so expect those pesky Iginla trade rumors to start up again. Particularly if, as outlined above, the team falls off the pace right away.
4.) Who will be Kipper’s back-up?
This issue might be moot since Kiprusoff is capable of playing pretty much the entire schedule by himself. That said, an injury would put the Flames in the enviable position of having to go with a tandem of Henrik Karlsson and Leland Irving in net. Yikes.
Karlsson has proven to be a mediocre NHL puck-stopper during his couple seasons in town, while Irving has been relegated to a third string goalie in Abbotsford behind Barry Burst and Danny Taylor (neither of which have NHL deals). If Kipper falters or get hurt, the club has less than ideal options to fill-in for him.
5.) Redemption for Mikael Backlund
Calgary’s lone top-six type forward in the 23-28 range had both an excellent and terrible season last year. Excellent because he was a team leader in terms of diffculty of play, scoring chance and possession metrics. Terrible because the puck just wouldn’t go in the net while he was one the ice, causing many fans and pundits to wonder if he’s just another bust in a long line of failed Flames draft picks.
Unlike the rest of the established roster, Backlund managed to play 23 games in the Allsvenskan this year, scoring 30 points (which was one of the best point-per-game paces in the league). SWE-2 is obviously big step down from the NHL, but his results show that Backlund still has some offensive spark in him.
He’ll likely never be a marquee point-getter in the league, but if Mikael can manage a 35-40 point pace while providing capable two-way play, he’ll re-affirm his place in the club’s plans. On the other hand if he suffers through another extended dry spell, expect the team to move on.
6.) How Will Bob Hartley Change Things?
By the end of his tenure here, it was clear Brent Sutter had run out of answers. It’s possible that’s because there aren’t any given the make-up of the roster…
That said, new bench boss Bob Hartley will get a chance to wring new life out of this group. It will be interesting see what new systems and new line combinations he will employ in an effort to get the club back into the playoffs.
7.) SVEN BAERTSCHI!
The Swiss phenom is the most exciting rookie to appear ’round these parts since Dion Phaneuf nearly a decade ago. He has already proven to be one of the best offensive weapons on the Heat this year despite being a fresh face 20 year old, so it’s almost certain he will break camp with the big squad. How he fares and who he plays with is one of the main reasons myself – and many others, I suspect – will be watching the games this season.
If Baertschi excels, it may give management the impetus to finally turn the page and start building the team around a new, younger nucleus going forward.